Ask Ann:

"How to Welcome a New Child"

(Ann Houck is a licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience working with at-risk children in the foster care system and in orphanages. Her childcare approach uses Trust-Based Relational Intervention, a framework for parenting children of trauma, developed at Texas Christian University.)

QUESTION: What's the best way to interact with a child when they first arrive at our orphanage?

By Ann Houck • 3 min read

Ann answers:

The moment we greet a newly arrived child at our orphanage, we begin the journey of connecting with them. During their time with us, we will be discovering who they are, what needs they have and how we can meet those needs. We begin to provide a loving, nurturing, empowering environment to help them heal and grow.

But how do we begin? When a child crosses our threshold and we welcome them to our home, it is a crucial encounter—the start of connection.

How do we facilitate a warm welcome that begins a healthy, safe relationship?

1. Consider your physical posturing

Upon first meeting a child from a hard place, we need to be non-threatening. Are we smiling? Are we greeting the child at their physical level? For instance, remember that we are physically bigger than they are, so we want to appear as close to their size as possible. Are we bending down to be closer to their height? Kneeling down to be closer to their eye level is always a good idea.

Our posture, while we are in a squat and after standing, needs to be welcoming. Try to keep eye contact, but do not force it.

2. Use a slow, soothing voice

Once we are in a physical position to connect with the child, we want to use a voice tone that is soft and welcoming. Those of us with booming voices will need to learn to modulate them. Welcome the child; tell them that you are happy they are in your home. Speak slowly and remember to smile.

Since we do not know what has happened to bring this child into our care, we need to assume that they are scared and ready to run at the first opportunity. We want them to stay with us, to get a good meal and sleep in a safe, warm place. We do not want to scare them with powerful voices!

3. Ask before physical touch

At this time, the child may be very averse to touch. If you think a hand on their hand, or maybe shoulder, or under the chin, is in order, ask them if you may touch them. Would they like a hug? Do not assume that they do. Follow their lead.

4. Begin patiently transitioning

By now, it is probably time to stand up. Tell the child that you are going to stand before doing so. Ask them if they are hungry (be prepared with food whenever a new child enters your environment). At a slow pace, match your movements to the child’s. If they are looking down at their toes, do not attempt to make eye contact. If they are reluctant to go with you, let them be for a few minutes. And always, speak comforting words to them—

“We can wait here for a few minutes. Can you tell me what you would like right now? Do you need a bathroom?” “I have some food in the kitchen, would you like some now?”

Offer a hand, but do not become alarmed if they do not take it. Ask them to follow you. Try to sense what they are feeling. Paraphrasing the “golden rule” never hurts; i.e., offer to the child what you would want offered to you.

5. Be what they do not expect

Welcome the children without overwhelming them. You are thrilled they are in your home; they most likely are not. They come from abusive, threatening, traumatizing environments but it may be all they have ever known. They expect this new place will also be abusive, threatening, etc. Your job is to be the non-threatening, warm, welcoming person they want, but do not expect.

You are the connection that begins the child’s journey to health and safety. Be there for them, but do not force them to accept your position. Wait with and for them. Let them know that you will be there and when they are ready to connect, you will be ready too. Remember, you have all the time they need to be ready for the journey ahead.

This is just the beginning.

Ann Houck

Licensed clinical social worker; volunteer social work supervisor for Oak Life interns; experience working with children of trauma in child protective services and school social work settings.

Ann Houck

Ann Houck

Licensed clinical social worker; volunteer social work supervisor for Oak Life interns; experience working with children of trauma in child protective services and school social work settings.

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